Novak Djokovic salutes the Centre Court after ending Alexei Popyrin's fine challenge at Wimbledon. Image by AP PHOTO
  • tennis

Popyrin’s Centre Court dream ended by super Djokovic

Ian Chadband July 7, 2024

Alexei Popyrin was allowed to dream for just one set — until the great Novak Djokovic dismantled his Centre Court fantasy, leaving Alex de Minaur once more as the only Australian singles survivor at Wimbledon.

Sydneysider Popyrin took the opening stanza off the seven-times champion in scintillating fashion on Saturday in their third-round rematch, but that was as good as it got.

With rain threatening, the roof was then slid across the sport’s greatest tennis arena — and it caved in on the 24-year-old Aussie’s ambitions even as Popyrin still delivered one of the best performances of his career. 

Djokovic, wounded knee and all following his meniscus operation a month ago, was somehow able to then conjure up close to his immaculate best as he began to find his range and rhythm and, serving beautifully, powered away to a 4-6 6-3 6-4 7-6 (7-3) win.

Djokovic stars
 Djokovic even scored an imaginary penalty when the crowd started cheering an England shoot-out win. Image by AP PHOTO 

Earlier, the title hopes of de Minaur, the nation’s No.1, received a major boost as he was given the luxury of a walkover into the last-16 while his rivals continued to be frustrated by the rain. He’ll play rising 20-year-old French star Arthur Fils in the fourth round.

The Australian No.1’s smooth path eased further after his third-round opponent Lucas Pouille told him he was pulling with a stomach injury an hour and 45 minutes before the start of their match on Saturday.

De Minaur then had the luxury of a relaxing day and chose to watch the rematch of Popyrin versus Djokovic on TV, part two of a saga that began on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open in January when the 24-time grand slam winner also prevailed in four sets. 

“A very tough match, and I didn’t expect anything less. I knew he was going to be coming with a lot of self-belief,” said Djokovic, saluting his valiant opponent.

“He was the better player in the first set, I stepped it up, played a really good second a third, and the fourth was anybody’s.

“It was a very challenging match, mentally, to just hang in there.” 

Popyrin, though, said he felt the same gnawing frustration he felt after his Melbourne loss.

“Feeling a little bit bummed – but I’m close, I feel very close,” he said.

“It’s a matter of one or two points in important moments. He was quite solid, I played a few loose points in the tie-break.”

Popyrin, watched from the Royal Box by a host of global sports stars including England cricket captains Ben Stokes and Joe Root, had his moments, exploding into life to break his illustrious opponent with a spectacular cross-court winner for a 4-3 lead before taking the opener.

After the roof closure, Djokovic changing tack, starting to attack Popyrin’s weaker backhand wing and finding a relentless length on his returns. 

 Alexei Popyrin has his moments during a terrific effort – but it ended in vain. Image by AP PHOTO 

The only respite for the world No.47 came when at 1-4 down when just as he was about to serve, a huge roar and applause emerged from the crowd who had just heard England’s soccer men had just won their Euro24 quarter-final in a penalty shootout.

Both players began laughing, with Djokovic taking an imaginary penalty and the Australian goalkeeper Popyrin diving to save it. “Alexei defended it well,” smiled the Serb. 

Did you save it, Popyrin was asked. “Probably not the way he was serving,” responded the Australian, wryly. 

Indeed, Djokovic won 88 per cent of points behind his first serve, dropping just nine points as he turned the screw.

Popyrin fought valiantly in the fourth, inspiring a fever pitch reaction from the crowd when he rescued three break points at 5-5 and produced a remarkable shovel-shot game winner. 

With the crowd firmly behind the Australian, Djokovic wouldn’t be denied. “That was one of the best tie-breaks I’ve played this year,” he said, snuffing out Popyrin’s last chance after just over three hours.